Culture: Stories & Lit
A surprising encounter with her dog’s canid cousins.
December 25 2014
When you grow up as a child of the dry, in Southern California where water has always been as valuable as melted silver in the canals and irrigation ditches called zanjas way back in the early 1800s, the river calls you. The Santa Ana River calls me every day. I can’t ride my bike or walk beside it every day, but I do as often as I can, and my dog Fantasia loves the wildness of the river as if she were born to hunt there. She usually hunts tennis balls. But when we walk down the Tequesquite Arroyo just past the end of my street, and she realizes where we’re going, her head lifts and she tries to run at the end of the leash until my shoulder threatens to pop out of place. It’s the smell of willows, cottonwoods, rabbits and squirrels.
Down past the Orange County line, the river is encased in concrete and riprap, like the Los Angeles River and so many others. But here, the Santa Ana is still wild, though diminished by upstream dams and water diversion projects, and though the water runs bank-to-bank only after the most ferocious winter rains, there is always a wide band of shallow water moving eternally toward Corona and all the way down to Newport, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean.
Sometimes I worry about my lifelong obsession with place, with the small and large histories and memories particular to this part of California, even this river. But when Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 60 years on the throne, a procession of boats and barges accompanied her down the Thames, and I cheered for her river. I listened to Handel’s “Water Music,” composed for King George’s journey on a barge up the River Thames in 1717.
And Fantasia, a Flat-Coated Retriever, apparently a purebred dog picked up in Moreno Valley when she was only a year old before we adopted her seven years ago from the Riverside Humane Society, believes she is meant to be hunting ducks and fish in this river, as she was bred to do in some distant past—in Virginia, maybe, or in England.
But a few weeks ago, the coyotes almost got us, and the river taught me that it is wild still, wilder than we might like to believe. Last year’s winter storms uprooted willows and tangled the wild grapevines into snarls along the cottonwoods and oaks. This spring, the arrowroot has grown back full and lush, the straight branches Native Americans used for arrows when they lived along the river. Fantasia strained at the leash, wanting to leave the asphalt bike path along the edge of the riverbed and plunge into the trail she remembered led to the water.
I wanted to see the river, too. We wound through the powdery white sand through the cottonwoods, past the tree where the hanger has been dangling from a branch for a year as a reminder of floods, through the yellow blooms of monkey flower and the tiniest purple lupines just sprung from the glittery sand. We stood beside the water, watching a young egret watch us, and then he lifted abruptly into the air. I spoke on the phone to Doug, who remembered taking photos of us at this very spot, and then I heard the low confident laugh of a coyote.
To the left of me. West. Behind a bush. Then his compatriot answered, a different laugh, a coded chuckle. To the right of me. East. And one more checked in, burble of Yeah, I’m right here. A little southeast. One more—high-pitched, three yips, just farther in the circle.
They circle around my dog and me. It was not close to sunset. It was early. I hung up and breathed hard. I could smell them. Fantasia could smell them. But she thought they smelled, and sounded, incredibly attractive. Rather than tremble or pull me away, she sat down. Primly. Interested.
I said, “Fantasia, those are not sexy dogs. They are wild.” I thought, Do they want to kill us, or just toy with us?
I started to run away from the river, dragging Fantasia at first since she was still intrigued, straight back down the path, and they called to each other on all sides of us, as if we were passing a gauntlet of eyes. The sky was still very light, it wasn’t even 7 pm, and they were playing with us. The laughter and chorus of that many coyotes is one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard. I hear it all the time, from my bedroom window at midnight, and these are the same singers, but they sound much different moving alongside in the deadly quiet of the riverbed.
We ran until I was covered with sweat, and Fantasia had realized we weren’t hunting, but being hunted, and when we got to the asphalt path, the sounds of their game faded back. We had not seen them. I kept running on the asphalt until two young guys on bikes came up behind us and said, “You okay?”
“Coyotes,” I gasped, and they said they’d heard them, too. They walked with us until we reached the trailhead, and then kept riding. Fantasia’s tongue hung out pink and long, her sides heaved, and she looked happier than I’ve ever seen her. I leaned against the last fencepost of the bike trail and looked back at the trees swaying in the breeze, the white fluff drifting off the cottonwoods, and heard a few more chuckles of coyote song in the distance where they might have found someone else to play, to remind them of the power of moving water that belongs to no one.
This piece was adapted from the original that appeared as a KCET SoCal Focus commentary, “Notes of a Native Daughter.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
May 12 2012
I never had a dog. I grew up in a cat household, with a mother who disliked dogs for their digging and mess and noise. I can’t blame her, as we were five kids who had lizards, hamsters, parakeets, fish, and always, two or three cats.
But I wanted a dog so badly! I wanted a red Cocker Spaniel like Rusty, the fictional dog featured in novels I read again and again. I dreamed of a brave dog like Rusty, who swam into choppy ocean waves to rescue a boy, who sensed that a train was about to crash, who bounded into fields to find a lost girl. His coat was shiny and his eyes alert, and he was a hero.
At 12, I brought home a stray while my parents were on vacation, knowing our elderly babysitter wouldn’t notice. She didn’t. My mother did, on her return, and so the dog went to live at my friend’s house three streets away. I visited, but it wasn’t the same.
When I married my childhood sweetheart, I knew he didn’t want a dog, as he’d been raised with a black Cockapoo who hated everyone under twenty, and demonstrated it by biting them. We bought a house on a busy four-lane avenue, a former farmhouse with a big yard, and we had three kids.
Our first daughter was not a dog lover, as she'd been nipped on the hand by a boisterous Old English Sheepdog when she was two, and shortly afterward nipped on the face by an ill-tempered Sheltie down the block. Gaila likes rabbits. Our second daughter was not a dog lover, because she is obsessed with insects and wants to be an entomologist. Delphine collects bugs.
But our third daughter, Rosette, said Dog before she said Daddy. She is a kindred spirit, as they say. Our neighbor, who babysat her twice a week when I went to work, got a yellow Labrador puppy named Chelsea days after Rosette was born, and they slept together on the bed, Rosette with her fist curled around Chelsea’s felt-soft ear and her thumb in her mouth.
Her father and I divorced when she was only one, and Rosette began asking for a dog as soon as she could form sentences. When she was two, we took a trip to New York, just me and Rosette, and she met every dog in Gramercy Park, where we staying. By the second day she was calling them by name, those city dogs out on their walks, and we had to eat in restaurants with sidewalk tables so we could visit her canine friends, who truly seemed to recognize the smell of her chubby crumb-laden hand.
I tried to prepare: I bought books about puppies and their care, about puppies walking through meadows and cavorting with other baby animals. Rosette had other ideas: “Yellow Labrador, Irish Setter, Border Collie, Basset Hound, Beagle.” She got a dog breed book and we had to study their physical characteristics and temperaments. She was three then. In Prescott, Arizona, she identified King Charles Spaniels after an owner explained how rare the breed was, and she has remembered them since.
Having a child who loved dogs with this kind of passion was fascinating, but also intimidating. I knew we couldn’t get a puppy, as people had warned that work and school would take us away for too long. Having cried for hours over lost or stray dogs on our avenue, Rosette wanted to adopt someone from the Humane Society. So in November of that year, we walked the gauntlet of cages and barking, and wary or pleading eyes.
Rosette went immediately to the shaggy black Spaniel named Teddy, who looked so depressed he barely ambled out to the chain link. The big test was whether a dog could handle us as a family, so I’d brought all my girls and two of their small friends, along with one of our caged rabbits. The shelter assistant brought Teddy to us in the meeting area. He walked over to Rosette, licked her face, and sat beside her. He looked at the other girls as if to say, “Yeah, I see you.” He looked at the rabbit as if to say, “Yeah, you’re in a cage.”
Teddy had been found in a neighboring city, with a slight limp and bruised hip that indicated someone had been kicking him. He’d already been adopted once, but returned by the childless couple who’d kept him in an apartment for up to ten hours as a time, because he urinated inside.
He peed once inside our house, the first day, but never again. He waited patiently for Rosette to let him outside, where she fed him, picked up his poop, and brushed him. Solemnly, she repeated to me, “I made a promise and I am keeping it.”
Teddy is a classic shelter dog, in that he will never have had enough to eat. That first week, he ate a cake, plastic wrap and all, that had been left on the coffee table, and gobbled up a dropped Advil and a Flintstones multivitamin when I cleaned out my backpack. We stayed with him for hours, worried, while he waited for us to drop something else.
He wasn’t a Cocker Spaniel, Rosette assured me, paging through one of her dog breed books until she found him. Teddy had shorter, ragged ears, a taller build, a longer nose. He was a Field Spaniel, Rosette said.
I studied him those first months, wondering about his bravery and nobility. Would he have the chance to save someone, like Rusty, my heroic red Cocker? When I lifted Rosette into the air and twirled her, he ran over and put a paw on her leg to make me put her down. If I tickled her, he wedged his head between us, never growling, but looking sternly at me, as if to say I should know better. Soon, when older sisters or friends were playing rough, Rosette would call, “Teddy!” and with applications of his stinky breath and head butts, he would make them leave her alone. Once, as an experiment, I tackled Gaila, who is my size, and tickled her. Teddy just watched, slightly bored.
Teddy’s job was to save Rosette’s spirit. She has dog love threading through her veins from some ancestor, dog love wound tightly around her heart like the branching arteries displayed in her encyclopedia. Unlike her sisters, she never really had a father who lived in our house. Teddy was hers alone. She slept in his dog bed, and he slept on her small fold-out couch in the living room. He walked her to preschool with me every day, and her class, The Cute Kittens, mobbed him. He never barked or growled or even moved away. In his second week with us, Teddy sat in the middle of a circle of them, 13 three-year-olds, and Rosette talked about him. Then he ate 13 dog biscuits, to please everyone, and didn’t throw up. He submitted to inspections and hard head pats and screaming. His eyes never left Rosette. I realized the extent of Teddy's nobility, and I was willing to accept his neediness.
Because now, four years later, he is a needy dog. He has no other dog friends, though we’ve tried repeatedly. Not even Chelsea, who he attacks along with her sister Hannah, another yellow Lab. Teddy will never accept another canine, even on the sidewalk for casual conversation, and he’s injured himself repeatedly because his version of bravery makes him guard our fenced yard with blind ferocity. He has been bitten on the nose, while barking through the fence, by neighbors' dogs, and hurt his leg chasing Chows and even Pit Bulls. Nearly every house in our neighborhood has at least two dogs, but Teddy will not even wag at them. Two dogs in my brother’s tough pack, which runs in a nearby orange grove, like to visit us: We tried to acclimate Teddy to Soot and Charcoal on the front porch, which was fine until Rosette came banging out of the screen door to see them. Teddy promptly tried to take a chunk out of Soot’s back leg.
Last summer, he destroyed a rear anterior cruciate ligament, chasing down passing dogs like an aging football player. I spent a thousand dollars on your good leg, I told him, when we took him for surgery. Two days in the animal hospital, along with anesthesia, left him altered, so anxious that he has never been the same since. His new ligament works fine, but he won’t let me leave a room, blocking the doorway or the back of my chair with his body, in case he’s abandoned again. His marked resemblance to Richard Nixon on an unhappy day has deepened. Teddy stares at me in the morning, jowly and melancholic because it’s hot, or cold, or windy, or because I was asleep.
He hates it when we leave, and can't be left alone for even five minutes without trying to dig out or jump the fence. What with school and sports and errands, by the time we are done for the day he is beside himself. And that’s just when I usually have six or seven girls here for homework or basketball: Teddy sits under the basket, or sits on their papers, or tries to lie on my feet while I am at the stove, not a happy camper myself by that point in the afternoon.
I wanted a brave independent dog who would keep out the marauding cats trying to kill the rabbits, who would bark at strange men, rather than inspecting them for Del Taco burritos and hot sauce. I realize we are not drowning in the ocean or lost in a field, but some Rusty-like nobility of demeanor would help, rather than the baleful and incredulous eyes that say to me, “You’re trying to get to the cupboard for macaroni and cheese again, and I find that incredibly irritating when I am trying to get comfortable on your instep.” When we tell him to go lie down, Teddy moves five inches, and his look combines glare and guilt in a way that's so presidential that I have to laugh.
A neighbor takes care of him when we go to work or on vacation, since Teddy is terminally anxious now. This summer Rosette turned seven, and on an East Coast trip she brought her dog breed book to identify new friends. She learned the intricacies of Sheltie breeding, studying the double merle; she walked a Jack Russell Terrier, and worried about the breathing of a black Lab with a lung tumor. But the only time she cried was when she missed Teddy. Not her father, or grandparents, or friends. Only her dog.
I have watched her, all these years. No one else feeds or walks Teddy, or picks up his poop, unless Rosette is sick. She doesn’t always remember her homework, and plays no sports, preferring to amble around with her dog. I have had to learn patience from both of them, since Rosette is known as my Velcro child for her clinginess, and Teddy is called “the neediest dog on the planet” by our bemused neighbors, with their rough independent German Shepherds and Rottweilers. But I realize, looking around at my house with its pack of girls, all female animals with hierarchies and assigned spaces and conflicting personalities, that Teddy picked the right place.
He stares at me now, while I write, daring me to move a muscle, draped across the doorway. I am not ashamed to admit that I am used to chaos and company, and when my kids are gone, I need someone else in the house. It helps that I’m accustomed to company that regards me censoriously if I am not doing something useful, like laundry, dishes, walking, dropping crumbs or retrieving dog biscuits. This is the home of needy short animals, and Teddy fits in perfectly, bravely licking up stray puddles of toxic-blue Otter Pops, surviving the inexpert eye-pokes associated with brushing by school friends who have never had a dog, and lying with one eye open under the mulberry tree where Rosette reads, waiting for her to come down so he can rescue her with his patience and devotion.
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